Leon (Joseph) Edel Critical Essays

Introduction

Leon (Joseph) Edel 1907–

American critic and editor.

Edel is widely recognized as the world's foremost scholar on Henry James. His interest in James dates back to the 1920s, when he wrote his undergraduate thesis on James and the modern psychological novel. Since then, he has written prefaces to and edited numerous volumes of James's work and written many critical and biographical studies on James. Most prominent of these is his five-volume series, The Henry James Biography (1953–1978). This work, published as a two-volume set under the title The Life of Henry James (1977), took Edel nearly twenty years to complete and has been called by Hilton Kramer "one of the most extraordinary literary labors of our time."

The first volume of James's biography, The Untried Years: 1843–1870, appeared in 1953, The second and third volumes, The Conquest of London: 1870–1881 and The Middle Years: 1882–1895, were published in 1962, and Edel won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for these works. After the fourth volume, The Treacherous Years: 1895–1901 (1969), and the final volume, The Master: 1901–1916 (1972), were completed, critics generally agreed that Edel's biography provided a depth and insight into James far surpassing any other study to date and that it also stood as a monumental work of art in its own right.

Edel's approach to biographical writing combines a journalistic attention to detail, a psychological interest in the artistic mind, and an artful mastery of narrative flow. Due to Edel's extensive research and probing precision, The Henry James Biography dispels many of the myths surrounding James and reveals previously unknown facts about his life and his character. Critics often praise Edel's ability to incorporate immense scholarship into a graceful, readable text and the imaginativeness and ease with which he connects James's life and art. Edel's manner of extracting the story behind the man has resulted, many critics believe, in a vivid evocation of a complex literary master. According to Alfred Kazin, Edel's attempts to "'melt down' his materials into an organic narrative that would not only record, but directly portray, Henry" have succeeded in presenting a complete account of James's life and work.

Few critics find fault with the factual scholarship of The Henry James Biography. Some, however, question Edel's methods, especially the psychological interpretations he employs in his analysis of the writer and his work. Quentin Anderson commends Edel's attempts to examine the texts in light of James's unconscious motivations, but he holds that Edel dissociates the early formative years from the mature artist, asserting that "Edel is not to be trusted with evidence about the psyche." How the people in James's life influenced his "choice of themes, subjects, characters, and events is endlessly documented, yet the influence of James's psyche on the immediate prose surface is barely touched upon." William H. Gass, noting that James led an unremarkable life yet produced extraordinary works, believes the "history of such a man must somehow contrive to be the history of his imagination." Like Anderson, Gass is unsatisfied with Edel's efforts "to explain James's genius, to find the secret sources of his imagination."

In addition to his work on Henry James, Edel has written biographies of James Joyce, Willa Cather, and, perhaps most notably, the Bloomsbury group. Although Bloomsbury: A House of Lions (1979) has been faulted for its overly sympathetic and romantic portrayal of the group's members, this work is marked by a similar attention to detail and the same interest in revealing the unknown facts of the Bloomsbury circle that characterized The Henry James Biography.

Edel's views on the connection between literature and psychology are expounded in both The Psychological Novel: 1900–1950 (1955) and the recent Stuff of Sleep and Dreams (1982). In The Psychological Novel Edel traces the origin of the modern psychological novel to the year 1910, when new writers broke away from the techniques of such "materialist" authors as H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy and embraced the stream-of-consciousness techniques of such "spiritualist" authors as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Dorothy Richardson. He claims that the psychological novel shares with Symbolist poetry a desire to evoke states of consciousness. Critics generally agree that although his argument is not new, Edel presents it clearly and intelligently. Stuff of Sleep and Dreams continues Edel's exploration of literary psychology; in this work he attempts to define and support the psychological approach to literature. Although his methods have received varied critical response, Edel's position as one of the most important contemporary literary biographers remains secure.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed. and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)